When The Passion Seems Yours Alone
Film enthusiasts are at times like misguided evangelicals, persisting in a life’s mission of bringing others to the fold. How often have we tried (and mostly failed) at "introducing" family and friends to our idea of better viewing? From a time when I could first thread Castle reels upon our 8mm Bell & Howell Regent, mine has been an ongoing assault upon varied unfortunates dragged to darkened rooms for screenings they’d as soon avoid. Quick upon heels of acquiring a "Complete Edition" (eight minutes) of Dracula in 1964, I prevailed upon my father to abandon his morning oatmeal to attend my premiere of same. It’s hard for devotees to accept possibilities of such stuff not appealing to everyone. Just give it a chance, you’ll say, then try concealing disappointment over a tepid (or worse) response. I’ve given up cheerleading for having been burnt so many times. Here’s Rule Number One: Never assure your audience that they’re about to see the funniest movie ever made, or the scariest one. That’s merely challenging them to prove you wrong. No one enjoys taking receipt of their opinion before they’ve expressed it. The wiser course might be suggesting they’d (possibly) find your show interesting, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s good or that they’ll like it. Interesting takes you off the hook for a brutal letdown sure to come when you make rash pronouncements. Gosh, John, I didn’t laugh once during that Harry Langdon film you just showed, to which I’d rejoin, Yes, but you must admit it was least interesting. We need hides like alligators to preach on behalf of classic movies. And never use that word! --- I stopped years ago --- what expletive is more intimidating and off-putting than classic? TCM, change your name and find that mass audience you’ve sought! I twist in emotional winds as outsiders look at my stuff. Honestly, it’s more satisfying to watch alone. At least then you bear no responsibility for inflicting a bad show on anyone other than yourself. I’m through performing celluloid baptisms, a balm to myself and most of those (outside collector circles) who’ve lately shared my company (I come here instead to annoy you readers). My courtship of girlfriend Ann did touch upon Universal horrors and even Deanna Durbin in First Love. As our relationship blossomed and necessity of constant togetherness diminished, she drifted off to evenings with seventies sitcoms and I withdrew to Films Noir, serials unendurable to those aspiring toward normalcy, and umpteenth unspoolings of The Thing. For giving ourselves over to such esoteric matters (which reminds me of a cousin who’d recently checked out GPS for the first time --- It’s OK, John, but too esoteric), might we have become intellectual carrots? The mind boggles (and see, I needn’t explain that reference, but would to anyone off the Greenbriar reservation). All this is mere preamble to my account herein of what disaster fell when just this week, Ann asked if we might watch something spooky together. As such was a rare request after seven years and most entertainment choices made separately, I decided to lay Black Sabbath on her, with alternating foreign/domestic versions, much background as to what the 1964 omnibus chiller had meant to me (since age 10), and drum-beating over scares it would generate for us both. Did I get burnt again? Yes I did.
My preparations toward getting things right, rather pathetic now in hindsight, involved leaps from DVD to DVR and back again. I’d known Black Sabbath most of my life and so was ready to play this chessboard. Ever identified the films with which you’ve shared an ongoing life’s history --- ones that resurface time and again as you get older? Black Sabbath is one of those for me. The first scrap of movie memorabilia ever to come my way had been a pressbook cover sent home by Colonel Forehand via my father just after the film’s 1964 first-run at the Liberty (that somewhat frayed item shown above). Already nostalgic for chillers like it by the time I was booking college programs, Black Sabbath played a 1975 Halloween tandem with Brides Of Dracula (if memory serves, each was had for $35 rental). I’d tightened that parlay by simply omitting Black Sabbath’s second of three stories, The Telephone, on my conviction that it was too weak a link and might prematurely drive off the audience (should have been horsewhipped for such temerity). Decades passed and Black Sabbath limped its way onto video and laser disc, a drab representation of what we’d enjoyed in theatres. DVD supplied a pictorially superior rendition of the Italian original (in that language), and though it preserved (at last) Mario Bava’s intended cut, this Black Sabbath lacked a crucial element, Boris Karloff’s voice. Those tracks are controlled by MGM stateside, and they’ve shown no interest in releasing the domestic version as it was re-cut/scored/dubbed by American-International back in 1964. You’d have to combine the two for something approaching an ideal presentation. As of this month and MGM-HD’s long-awaited broadcast of the AIP Black Sabbath, I was at last able to share a childhood’s horrific milestone, and this time I’d include The Telephone, jazzed up as now it was with a lesbian subplot missing from the US edition. Ann and I sat down on the Sabbath just previous (not necessarily a Black one) to watch, beginning with A Drop Of Water, which most consider by far the most effective of BS’s three offerings. That’s just a doll, screeched Ann as the frightful old hag stared from her deathbed. May-be, said I, but it terrified a generation of children, including myself. I might have argued further had not Black Sabbath run further aground with still weak despite lesbian subtexted The Telephone (to which she declaimed, that’s just lame) and an abysmal (Ann’s word) The Wurdalak, from which she exited altogether. I was left to solitary contemplation of Black Sabbath and doubt of my own judgment as to what’s good and bad in movies. Had sentiment and an excess of critical forbearance blinded me to realities of a frankly so-so (if that) horror movie no one younger than me could (or should) care about? Ann vaguely recalled it showing up on Channel 8’s Shock Theatre when she was ten (that would have been around 1971). Her household including three brothers laughed it off their black-and-white tube, abetted by horror host Dr. Paul Bearer and hot dogs they’d boiled for the telecast. Was this any way to watch Black Sabbath, let alone remember it? That difference between large screen and small, and a perhaps even more crucial one between color and monochrome, was enough to bleed Black Sabbath white for Ann, whose own comeuppance would come years later when she tried introducing The Legend Of Hell House, a horror that had rocked her theatrically in 1973, to her own children. Did you really think that was scary, Mom? was their incredulous inquiry after snickering and rolling eyes throughout the show.
I’d have gladly carried James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff’s bags through all those exhibitor conferences just to watch them operate in varied suites, lobbies, and cocktail lounges, for it was such hotel environs that breathed commercial life into Black Sabbath and others of its genre sort, bookings typically secured over AIP-sponsored luncheons and drinks supplied by Jim and Sam. American-International had become a showman’s best friend since opening shop in the mid-fifties. Nicholson was formerly in management and a movie fan besides. By 1963, he and Arkoff had sold bushel-barrels of low-budget horrors to theatres and drive-ins whose appetites for AIP’s kind of entertainment seemed insatiable. Their output was mostly color now, being necessitated by more and more monsters on TV since days when the company released their B/W cheapies pre-packaged in pairs. Jim and Sam figured to use known quantities from the home screen and toward that end made deals first with Peter Lorre, then Boris Karloff, both chiller veterans and late show regulars. Lorre’s pledge called for eight pictures over four years through 1967. Karloff would star in four through 1965, his contract barring any outside motion pictures dealing with horror, science-fiction, macabre subjects, or Edgar Allan Poe subjects. The restriction also applies to television, said trade mag Boxoffice. Lorre and Karloff had been a hit together in The Raven (here they are on a publicity junket for that) with $1.231 million in domestic rentals, but a follow-up, The Comedy Of Terrors, stumped its toe and brought back a disappointing $747,000. Maybe audiences didn’t want to laugh at their creepers after all (some theatre ads, like Chicago’s first-run shown here, actually tried minimizing light-hearted aspects of the film and sold it as a straight thriller). Another parodic project set to go, Graveside Story, which would have reunited the cast of The Comedy Of Terrors, was abandoned just short of production. Karloff dispatched to Europe for a shocker to be done in earnest by Italian director Mario Bava, whose Black Sunday in 1961 performed the best of any black-and-white genre pic AIP had released to that point ($706,000 in domestic rentals). Nicholson and Arkoff meanwhile continued looking for ways to enhance their good-will standing among exhibitors. The biggest noises generated by these were complaints over post-1948 features showing up on television. Ever ones for seizing opportunity that might enrich bookings, Jim and Sam took to convention floors and swore they’d stem the tide of product going over to the enemy… even as AIP was quietly preparing to close a video deal on much of its own library.
Producers and distributors have an obligation to offer some protection for exhibitors to prevent almost new pictures from being rushed into TV and in some cases conflicting with theatre bookings, said Nicholson to an assemblage of the Theatre Owners Of America and Allied States Exhibitors Organization in March 1963. We of American-International Pictures challenge the other companies to follow our pledge to exhibitors. The "No TV Clause" guaranteed that all future AIP product, beginning with The Raven and Operation Bikini, would be withheld from television for a minimum period of five years from the date of release, subject only to bank foreclosure or financial loss (the clearance would not apply if film rentals do not equal production and distribution costs and expenses within a period of two years from national release). Calling theirs an urgent and necessary move, Jim and Sam (posing below with exhibs) slammed actions of competing distributors as cannibalism of the worst sort and warned that this unregulated and indiscriminate early TV exposure cannot help but convince the public that they need only wait a few months and they will see all movies on TV free. This, of course, was music to a show world’s ears. Nicholson and Arkoff were all but hoisted up as if they’d kicked a winning field goal. TOA and Allied directors issued a resolution encouraging members to show their appreciation by booking AIP product at every possible opportunity. What came next could not have been entirely unexpected, for Nicholson announced in June 1963 that sixty-nine AIP features had been sold to five American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres television stations for two million dollars. All but seven of the sixty-nine were black and white and included titles such as The Amazing Colossal Man, Blood Of Dracula, and I Was A Teenage Werewolf, along with westerns, war, and other genre actioners the company had dabbled in. AIP assured theatres that product involved has been in continuous theatrical release and many of the films have been reissued and have exhausted their full theatrical potential. In fact, many if not most of them were still playing heavily on weekend hardtop programs and all-night drive-in berths. The company said it would provide showmen with dates of initial TV showings so as to avoid conflict with theatre bookings. Runs on AB-PT stations throughout 1964, these located in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and New York, were followed by wider syndication of the sixty-nine AIP’s in January 1965 through a company called Screen Entertainment. These knocked a lot of the old Universal monsters off their perch (I remember The Day The World Ended playing Charlotte’s Horror Theatre on New Year’s night, initiating a year of AIP domination of Channel 3’s Friday late movie).
It didn’t take American-International long to forget its promise. The company’s own TV division offered the Amazing ’65 package of twenty features to become available in September 1964. These included Black Sunday, Circus Of Horrors, and Konga, each outside perimeters of the pledge, having been released prior to 1963, but the following year’s Amazing ’66 (available September 1965), offering The Terror, Dementia 13, and The Evil Eye, among twenty-two titles, seemed to have violated terms. Had AIP lost money on these and thus excluded them from its protected group? The company’s theatrical revenue was dropping from previous seasons. The Terror only realized $360,000 in domestic rentals, Dementia 13 a worse $116,000. AIP was in effect competing with itself, having so much similar horror and sci-fi backlog not only saturating in theatres, but now in homes as well. American-International Television began salting its syndication packages with Euro titles unreleased stateside and very cheap sci-fi’s they’d commissioned from producer Larry Buchanan. The Amazing Adventures 1967 group included twenty-five features and Black Sabbath was among them, its availability announced March 1966 for Autumn season play (Queen Of Blood was included as well, despite having been released theatrically that same March --- could this be why they changed its title to Planet Of Blood?). Black Sabbath had maxed out with $419,000 domestic rental dollars from 7,130 theatrical bookings. Boris Karloff in horror films tended to perform well below what Vincent Price could recover for the same brand. Black Sabbath may also have been shunned in church-going communities where small exhibs passed so as to avoid negative patron response to its title (I noticed that apparent trend in a lack of bookings for the film in surrounding NC towns, though our Liberty thankfully ran it as a single for two days). All this history is so much smoked meat now that we (more or less) have ready access to Black Sabbath, but its critical reputation remains largely stillborn outside fan followers who remember it new (Maltin’s Guide assigns it just two-and-a-half stars) and that’s largely because it was so hard to decently see for so long. Will presentations worthy (Thanks, Anchor Bay DVD and MGM-HD) and scrupulously researched production histories elevate Black Sabbath to a deserved pantheon? Only if they keep Ann out of the voting!